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A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Diacritics: Vol. 24, No. 2/3, Critical Crossings (Summer – Autumn, 1994), pp. 205-226
The famous line from that modern romance- “A kiss is just a kiss”- is the message the Gawain-poet gave his listeners six centuries ago. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem so devoted to the surfaces of things (its lavish attention to courtly manners, occasions, and appointments is often remarked) and so preoccupied with keeping the depths and fissures from bursting forth (its narrative swerve from beheading to confession and penance is the most pointed example) that it labours to limit the significance of its signs, the nature of its characters, the meanings of their actions. This labor of limitation – the reduction of the polyvalent sign to the monovalent meaning – requires the operation of a principle of intelligibility, and it is just this principle of SGGK whose operations I want to track.
The narrative begins in the bright courtly circle of Camelot in its youth, where kisses are the prizes in New Year’s games among the ladies and knights. Such kisses seem unproblematic enough, just kisses, part of that young and breezy world of Arthur’s court as we first encounter it(“al watz this fayre folk in her first age [these fair folk were in their first age]” ). But the dynamic of the guessing game – when the lady loses she receives a knight’s kiss (or, perhaps: the lady loses in order to receive the kiss) – adumbrates more problematic kisses later on, the ones that are part of the seduction-exchange-testing plot orchestrated by Morgan la Faye and played out on Gawain when the scene moves to Bertilak’s castle. Those later, problematic kisses, savoury and solemn, are given by the eager lady of the castle to Gawain; Gawain eagerly gives them, savoury and solemn, to the lord, Bertilak. Though the poem doesn’t skip a beat – a kiss is a kiss is a kiss – I want to ponder the implications of those men’s kisses.